By Josh Peterson, editor
The members of the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted Tuesday to, in effect, keep in place a compensation increase for current members of the board that will more than double what they currently receive.
The six aldermen on the board will soon receive pay increases that will increase their compensation from the current rate of $250 per month to $850 per month. The mayor will see a hike from $800 per month to $1,600 per month.
The raises were passed in a charter change approved by the board during the summer of 2013 that is currently awaiting state approval.
Some members, however, claim that they didn’t believe the raises were intended for officials now in office.
Upon recently discovering that the raises would actually take place for elected officials now in office, Alderman Cheryl Swan, citing ethics, presented a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting to postpone the compensation increases to take effect for the next group of elected officials.
But Swan’s resolution was defeated in a 3-3 vote, with Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman deciding to let the current charter change stand.
Ryan French, Donny Parsley and Roxanne Patton all voted against the resolution to postpone the pay increases.
Swan, Tim Pauley and Russell Bryan all voted to postpone the raises and decrease the amount aldermen would receive to $500 per month once the raises go into place. Norman’s refusal to break the tie failed the resolution.
“I admit, I failed to understand the part [of the charter change] where we talked about aldermen and mayor receiving raises [when we passed this],” Swan said at the meeting, adding that she is “100 percent positive that we said that [raises] would come after the next election. I admit that I missed that change that was made [to the final copy]. I can’t find in the minutes where it happened.”
Swan added that the board voting to give members a raise during their current term was unethical.
“I don’t think it is ethically right to give ourselves a raise,” she said. “We all knew what the pay was when we signed up and $850 and $1,600 are absurd.”
Pauley echoed Swan’s thoughts.
“I remember it as not us [getting a raise], but later,” said Pauley.
Swan added that the board should have taken the opportunity to postpone the raises for the next group of elected officials.
“We have a chance to correct this,” she said before the vote.
Norman said the city was within its legal rights to implement raises for him and the aldermen by pushing it through a charter change and not through an ordinance – which would have required three readings and wouldn’t go into place until after elections.
“I talked to [city attorney] Gerald [Ewell] and he said, ‘no, you can’t give yourself a raise. But, once you send it to Nashville in a charter change and they send it back then everybody gets it [immediately],’” said Norman.
Norman added that if raises don’t take effect until the next group of officials is elected then pay would be staggered for a few years.
“That’s why you do it through a charter, so some people aren’t making more than others,” said Norman.
Norman added that nothing has been changed in the charter paperwork submitted to the state for approval since the board voted on the changes last summer. He said rumors that someone had changed the compensation amounts behind closed doors “just weren’t true.”
“It was a 6-0 vote [to pass the charter with raises],” said Norman. “And now some are saying they didn’t know. It was never changed nowhere. Gerald has the paperwork from start to finish. Nothing was ever changed.”
Norman and other aldermen stated that the pay hikes were at the advice of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) to put elected-official compensation in line with surrounding areas. Parsley likened the move to an “adjustment” and not a “raise.”
“We are voting to put [compensation] in line with every city and town around here,” said Parsley. “We aren’t really voting to give ourselves a raise. As far as me giving myself a raise … that is not what I’m doing.”
But the new amounts aren’t necessarily in line with surrounding areas. The Manchester Times made phone calls to surrounding cities and discovered that Tullahoma mayor Lane Curlee makes approximately $783 per month and the aldermen are paid approximately $391 per month.
According to research, Shelbyville mayor makes $900 per month and aldermen make $650 per month. The McMinnville mayor makes $900 per month and aldermen make $400 per month. The Murfreesboro mayor makes $1,000 per month and aldermen make $950 per month.
According to 2010 US Census data, all of the contacted municipalities have larger populations to govern than Manchester. Murfreesboro has a population of 108,755, Shelbyville 20,335, Tullahoma 18,655, McMinnville 13,605 and Manchester 10,102.
The compensation hikes will also mean an additional $52,800 per year in salaries for the board members and mayor, which comes at a time when all city departments have been placed under a spending freeze and substantial cuts in departmental budgets for next fiscal year have been discussed. The city’s portion of health-insurance costs is also expected to increase significantly next fiscal year.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director for CREW – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that focuses on national, state and local governments – said the move merits “closer scrutiny.”
“Anytime politicians are involved in self-serving activity they open themselves up to tough questions and they deserve it,” Sloan told the Manchester Times. “What they did may not be illegal but it certainly merits closer scrutiny.”
The conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting became heated with multiple verbal jabs.
At the end of the meeting, Patton said that it’s “never going to be a good time to increase pay.”
Swan confronted Patton.
“You know it’s ethically not right to increase your own pay,” Swan said to Patton.
Patton responded, “exactly.”
When asked by Swan why she voted for the raises, Patton responded: “Because I’m on my way out. I’m leaving. I’m off the board as of August.”
French accused Swan of using the item as a campaign tactic.
“Since we are throwing around hypotheticals here, I’m going to hypothetically throw out the idea here that this sounds like a good campaign issue for you,” said French.
French then accused Pauley of “running to the newspaper.”
“Tim, you ran to the newspaper and accuse people of wrongdoing. You told everybody numbers were changed. That’s criminal. You are saying there is some kind of conspiracy here. Every time something comes up it is a conspiracy or somebody is doing something wrong. That’s pathetic.”
Pauley later responded to French’s accusation in a text message to the Times.
“I emphatically deny that I have ever gone to the newspaper or any other media organization making claims that alderman French describes.”
The next step for the charter change will be approval by the General Assembly, which is expected to be a formality.
“The worst thing that I can do is get involved in the City of Manchester’s internal business,” said State Rep. Judd Matheny. “As long as we get something that is constitutional and has a super majority of the Manchester board, it will likely get an up vote.”
Matheny added that if residents take issue with the pay raises then they should take them to the Manchester board.
“Some of the very same [aldermen] who had an issue with some term extensions that were pushed through in this same manner a few years ago are the same people who are giving their self a pay raise.
“This is an issue that the voters of Manchester have to decide whether they approve of or not.”